Lilly Goldman Chen, seven pounds, six ounces, was the first baby born in 1975 at New York Hospital: 12:02 AM. Her brother, Max, eleven pounds nine ounces, was born at 11:57 PM on December 31, 1974. She got her picture on the cover of the Daily News and all he got was ‘bupkes.’
The sun shined most brightly on her side of the stroller.
Grandma Chen would smooth Lilly’s straight black hair and grandma Goldman would pinch her cheeks, fat and round as matzoh balls, for good luck
From the time she was four she played Mahjong. She was a prodigy; a student of the science. A practitioner of the art.
Her father had taught her. He took her downtown to sit on his lap, to be his lucky little jíxiáng charm. She watched him play with the thin-bearded men, hunched over card tables in the crowded Community Associations and the aromatic basements of the storefront fish markets along Pell Street or on the benches among the sycamores and pigeons in Roosevelt Park.
He cooked and smoked along side them in the clattering, steam-laden, kitchens in B- and C-rated restaurants along Mott and Mulberry Streets.
Max had neither aptitude nor luck for the game but his sister encouraged him. ‘Max,’ she told him, ‘Watch me. You’ll see. Sometimes you just have to make your own luck.’
She was right. Like her father, she looked to the hidden faces of the ivory-white tiles. To count and remember them, to go where their desires led her.
She also learned to read the faces and flicked glances of those she played with, clues to which tiles they had and which they needed. And then, she made her own face as unreadable as a rain-soaked copy of the New York Times.
When the family moved across the river to Brooklyn, Lilly joined a few of her mother’s games. Theirs was a different sort of game. The competition was not so stiff but it was more cutthroat, more personal. Smirks, sighs, mm-hms, and eye-rolls were traded among the women with thick ankles sitting in warm kitchens around Formica tables, drinking coffee, mixing the clacking tiles like three card Monte sharps, trying to more evenly move the mojo around. Nevertheless, the mojo almost always found its way looking over Lilly’s shoulder. She became the queen of the high-stakes Park Slope mahjong gambling rings.
The women brought in new sets from their old aunts in Parsippany or Scarsdale. They plied Lilly with bottomless mimosas and their locshen kugels. All for naught. She won more than they liked or felt was fair.
One of the women installed a nanny-cam above the refrigerator to capture her every move. They looked for hidden tiles in her purse. They upped the ante. They lowered it. They conspired. They took to slipping tiles to one another in greasy napkins under the table.
In the end it was all too much for them. After months of putting up with her sincere and heartfelt apologies, she was asked, with a feigned politeness, to find another group, maybe another neighborhood, like Sterling Place, they said. She moved on. What else should she have done?
Adrift, she took to playing the numbers. She hit a big one and then another. The juju was with her. There was no skill in the numbers. It was all luck. She knew the policy racket was fixed and she didn’t care.
The boys from Court Street had their eye on her. They brought her into the business for a sizeable piece of the action.
She grew the North Slope action. She took few chances, only accepting slips from her regulars and referrals, many of her old mahjong cronies. They passed her rolled fives or tens, in the mornings in the produce aisle in Key Foods on Seventh Avenue.
She stored stacks of cash in Reynold’s Wrap like banana bread in her freezer.
She did her job, kept her head down, kept her mouth shut, and made the most of her mazel.
Then, one day her luck hit a speed bump, in the form of a young curly-headed Irish guy. He was wearing cut-offs and a Rangers jersey, giving her the eye one morning from over by the carrots and the bell peppers.
He asked her to get a coffee with him and, over a cinnamon bun in a café on Berkley Place, he smiled a shy, crooked-toothed smile and told her softly that she had the right to remain silent…
“Who rolled on me?, she asked. The magenta yenta in 3C with a view of the park, or the wandering-eyed grandma with the lochsen kugel, and the nanny-cam?”
“Nanny-cam,” he said. “Up to her wandering eyeballs in the beauty parlor slots racket in Sunset Park.” Then came the deal: if she gave him the goods on Nanny she could go free.
Lilly flipped like a sizzling hot pancake and is now spending her frozen assets on Duval Street in Key West with her brother Max, teaching the finer points of Mahjong to leathery men in the back room of Hemingway’s bar.